There has been a movement over the past few years to eliminate late fees for overdue books in libraries. San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle and Columbus are among the cities previously to eliminate them. Now, the movement has now landed the big fish. The New York Public Library, and associated Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries, announced last month they are eliminating all such fees. It is a move endorsed by the American Library Association as far back as 2019.
Eliminating late fees may seem counterproductive at first. How will libraries get people to return their books without them? That may seem logical, but libraries have found they really don't help. What they did find is that they hurt people of limited financial means while those with more money are not particularly motivated to rush their books back by the relatively low amounts charged. For the poor, those amounts can be challenging, and here, the fines are counterproductive to getting books returned. If they can't afford the fine, they don't bring the books back. It creates an endless cycle – they hold onto the books, and being barred from borrowing more, get shut out of the library. Families who most need the educational benefits of a library become the ones unable to use it.
The ALA stated its position in 2019 when they labeled monetary fines as “a form of social inequity.” They urged all libraries to eliminate them. In their announcement, the New York Public Library explained, “The goals of this major policy shift include encouraging increased usage of the library systems, as well as creating a more equitable system that does not disproportionately impact high-need communities.” Borrowers' library cards were blocked when they had more than $15 in fines outstanding, which meant an incredible 400,000 patrons were blocked from borrowing books. The majority were in low-income neighborhoods, with the lowest income neighborhoods having six times as many blocked patrons as others. One in five cardholders was blocked at some branches. Along with discontinuing fines, the library announced that it would clear all pre-existing fines so these patrons could again make use of all of their services immediately.
NYPL President Anthony W. Marx said, “During the pandemic, it was clearer than ever that we live in a Tale of Two Cities, with our most vulnerable citizens too often left behind. We must work to ensure that we are adhering to our mission of making knowledge and opportunity available to all, and that means addressing late fines. They are an antiquated, ineffective way to encourage patrons to return their books; for those who can afford the fines, they are barely an incentive. For those who can’t afford the fines— disproportionately low-income New Yorkers—they become a real barrier to access that we can no longer accept. This is a step towards a more equitable society, with more New Yorkers reading and using libraries, and we are proud to make it happen.”
It should be noted that eliminating late fees is not a license to steal. After 30 days of being overdue, a lost book replacement fee will be assessed to borrowers. Borrowing privileges will be suspended when accounts owe more than $100. However, if the missing book is later found, the assessment will be removed from their account. They also may be refunded a replacement fee they have already paid if the book is returned within 90 days of the due date. They really don't want your money. They want your patronage.